On the Virginia Tech and Columbine Anniversaries: Let's Stop School Gun Violence

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Students stand at a vigil to commemorate victims of the Columbine massacreNrbelex's Flickr photostream/Creative Commons

April 20, 1999, 11:25 am: A Jefferson County, Colo., 911 operator answers a phone call. The woman on the other end says in a panicked voice:

"Yes, I am a teacher at Columbine High School. There is a student here with a gun."

The teacher’s name is Patti Nielson. She is calling from the school library, crouched under a desk. Surrounding her are 52 students whom she repeatedly orders to stay on the floor and under the tables. The student with the gun is in the hallway upstairs.

11:29 am: Patti whispers: “He’s in the library. He’s shooting at everybody...”

Listening to the tape of that harrowing phone call brings back the horror of that day 11 years ago, when the massacre at Columbine High School devastated our nation.

Eight years later—and three years ago today—our country was rocked again by a heinous school tragedy. A senior at Virginia Tech murdered 27 students and five faculty members before killing himself.

This week, as we remember the innocent victims who lost their lives and hold their grieving families in our hearts, we cannot help but wonder what we can do to keep these extreme acts of gun violence from happening again.

Gun Control Legislation

Schools should be safe places for children to learn, yet too many students feel threatened by fellow classmates who come to school armed and dangerous.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System:

• 1,011,791 high school students across America take a weapon to school at least once every 30 days.

• 943,195 high school students feel too unsafe to go to school at least once every 30 days.

• 5.2 percent of high school students carry a gun at least once every 30 days.

• 1.35 million high school students are threatened or injured with a weapon on school property at least once every year.

The Virginia Tech massacre led to the passage of the first major federal gun control measure in more than 13 years. On January 5, 2008, President George W. Bush signed a law preventing gun purchases by criminals and those declared mentally ill. It was a step in the right direction, but more legislation is needed to keep dangerous weapons out of our schools.

Safe to Tell

In 2002, the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Education Department conducted a study of school shooters and found that most usually tell other students about their plans in advance.

Yet teenagers often hesitate to report what they hear for fear of being labeled “a snitch” or ostracized by their peers. Princeton sociologist Katherine Newman, co-author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, recommends that schools provide students with "confidential avenues for reporting.”

One such program yielding dramatic results is Colorado’s Safe2Tell anonymous tip line. Over four and a half years, information from the tip line reportedly enabled schools officials to prevent 28 planned school attacks.

Bullying Prevention

Following the Columbine massacre, personal information about the lives of the two shooters surfaced—including descriptions of the ongoing harassment and humiliation both endured at the hands of their peers. According to fellow student Devon Adams, “Whether they were wearing jeans and a T-shirt, or whether they were wearing their black trench coats, people would give them looks. Just like, ‘You don't belong here, would you leave?'...It's just, they were hated and so they felt they hated back. They hated back.”

While being victims of bullying in no way justifies the boys’ subsequent actions, it does help explain their motivation. As mentioned in a previous post, experts suggest that the most effective way to contain harassment in schools is by implementing prevention programs that address the problem at its source: school culture. This means focusing not only on bullies and their victims, but on student bystanders who have the power to intervene.

Exemplary programs that consider the school as a whole, and not just the bullies, include the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and the Safe School Ambassadors program, which equip student leaders from diverse campus cliques with nonviolent intervention skills to squelch antisocial behavior among peers.

Adult Connection

William Pollack, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, claims that the Columbine shooters "needed help, and what they got day after day was no one noticing. They were left alone. Adolescents, even though they say they want to be alone...they really want some kind of connection with an adult who understands and cares."

In studying schools that successfully foiled rampage killings, Jeff Daniels, a counseling psychologist at West Virginia University, discovered an interesting quality these schools have in common: abundant and respectful contact between staff and students. “You'd go into the school cafeteria, and almost every table had a teacher interacting with kids, really visiting with them," Daniels says.

Regular interaction not only alleviates troubled students’ feelings of hopelessness and alienation, but it alerts adults to potentially serious emotional and mental health issues that can then be treated. That’s why Shane Jimerson, school psychology professor at University of California Santa Barbara, teaches a “check and connect” strategy to school employees during her crisis workshops. Every day, at least one adult in the school is responsible for talking to specific students.

Following the massacre, Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis said: “Columbine served as a wake-up call. No one can ever say, 'It could never happen here.'”

The potential for school violence exists everywhere. It is incumbent upon all schools to take every necessary precaution, and make student safety an absolute priority.

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